State lawmakers returned to the State House Wednesday for the first session of 2023 to put the final rubberstamp on Gov. Janet Mills’ request for a $473 million spending bill.
“I thank the Legislature for its strong, bipartisan vote, and I look forward to continuing to work with them to implement long-term solutions that will bring down energy costs, improve energy efficiency, and reduce Maine’s highest-in-the-nation dependence on expensive and harmful fossil fuels,” Mills said in a statement to press.
Since the start of her first term in office, Mills has been an ardent critic of cheap, convenient fossil fuels and a major proponent of subsidized renewable energy, like wind power and solar panels.
The package — L.D. 3, “An Act to Establish the Winter Energy Relief Payment Program to Aid Residents with High Heating Costs and to Finalize the COVID Pandemic Relief Payment Program” — sailed through the House and Senate with only a few failed attempts by Republicans to offer amendments.
The package includes expanded funding for the federally funded Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), more funding for an emergency home heating assistance program, and stop-gap funding to replace federal Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program funding that expired in December. These aspects of the bill will ensure that Maine’s welfare programs continue to provide the expanded level of benefit that was initially justified as a response to the pandemic lockdowns.
The larger part of the bill, though, will be $450 dollar direct payments the administration wants to make to more than 800,000 Mainers, fresh on the heels of the $850 payments Mills sent out right before Election Day 2022. The bill also contained some money to “finalize” the last batch of checks the administration sent out, as unforeseen errors have caused complications with the handout of those particular checks.
The money to fund all of this will come from a forecasted surplus in state revenues and federal dollars, including Medicaid money originally allocated for nursing homes and individuals with traumatic brain injuries.
House Speaker Rachel Ross (D-Portland) and Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) first attempted to secure package of the emergency legislation in early December when new lawmakers were sworn in. But, as an emergency measure, passing it required two-thirds support from both houses of the legislature. Although many House Republicans fell in line with Democrats at the time, Senate Republicans withheld their support in order to force public hearings for the bill. Those hearings were held prior to the Christmas break.
The final package looks almost identical to what Mills originally proposed, making the first legislative day of 2023 an unambiguous victory for the Democratic executive.
Prior to the bill’s passage, Democratic lawmakers shot down a proposed amendment that would have turned the $450 checks into a three-month sales tax holiday, a move Republicans suggested in order to mitigate the inflationary effects of sprinkling cash all over the state.
Rep. Laurel Libby (R-Auburn) introduced the amendment in the House, but it failed there. Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) introduced the same amendment again in the Senate, but it failed again. In both houses, it was majority Democrats who blocked the proposed sales tax holiday.
“Mainers are feeling the effects of record-setting inflation and utility costs that continue to rise. Unfortunately, as written LD 3 does not provide any long term solutions for the policies that are driving those costs to increase,” said Libby.
“I proposed using money allocated to relief checks toward a three-month sales tax holiday instead. A sales tax holiday would give meaningful relief to all Mainers, not just some,” she said.
Next Wednesday, Mills is expected to unveil her next major legislative item: the biennial budget.
That proposal will chart the course of state government for the next two years.